Caleigh McCutcheon contemplates a 19th-century painting that celebrates St. Joseph's role in Jesus' life.
Christian art has always favored images of the Mother and Child, and poor Joseph is often delegated to the background. But having just celebrated Father’s Day this month, I wanted to bring Joseph back to the forefront. Painted by Georges de la Tour in 1642, Joseph the Carpenter depicts a sweet moment between Foster-father and Christ.
This artwork now hangs in Louvre, and it is easy to see why. Their bond is immediately evident, with the young Christ assisting Joseph by holding the candle to light his workspace. No different than today, when you assign your child the important task of holding the flashlight, it is not just a bonding moment, but a chance to teach valuable life skills.
It is important to remember that God chose to place His son in a working-class household. Christ would learn firsthand, like any child, about the value of hard work, helping others and taking responsibility.
The artist has made this moment even more unique by using one lone candle. While any other scene cast in darkness might imply sadness or drama, the candle held by Christ reveals instead the warmth and love between Christ and Joseph. The style of painting the sharp differences between light and shadow is known as tenebrism, and the artist Georges de la Tour is celebrated for his mastery of this technique. Most of the artworks created throughout his career feature dramatic scenes lit by a lone candle, and just as many of them are scenes from the gospel. It is a small but important detail that the artist uses to connect the audience with Christ. After all, working by candlelight was a common pastime up until the late 19th century.
The candle reveals only what is necessary for the scene, and that is an eager, young Christ observing Joseph hard at work. The artist prefers to keep the setting in the natural world, as the only hint at Christ’s divinity is the candle shining brightest on His face. The wood Joseph is carving resembles the arm of a cross, and the hole he bores is not unlike where a nail would go. Even in the precious moment between the child and foster-father, the fate of Christ on the Cross is ever present.
While Christ’s true Father is God, this work of art by Georges de la Tour makes it clear that Joseph still played an important role in Christ’s life. While sacred art tends to center on Mary and her life with Christ, Joseph should not be forgotten, for he too helped raise the Son of God.
Today he is venerated as the patron saint of workers, pilgrims, fathers, and of course, carpenters.
Copyright 2020 Caleigh McCutcheon
Image: St. Joseph the Carpenter by Georges de la Tour (1640s), Public Domain
About the Author
Caleigh McCutcheon is the curator at the Museum of Family Prayer in North Easton, MA. She has a BA in English from Stonehill College and a MA in Art History from Glasgow University. Her Master’s thesis focused on the complexity and lasting power of the Pieta image in Christian art. She considers art to be one of the most powerful forms of prayer.